“Yesterday They All Went Gathering Maple Leaves” – The National Flag Turns 50

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Today, it is so synonymous with Canadian identity – wearing a maple leaf immediately identifies you as a Canadian.  It flies from sea to sea on flag poles, from masts, even on the sides of cars, and it has been sewn, adorned, and even tattooed.  It flies proudly in celebration, and is respectfully lowered in mourning.

From the Oshawa Times, February 15, 1965, page 1
From the Oshawa Times, February 15, 1965, page 1

The implementation of the Maple Leaf as the National Flag was not without controversy.  Canada had been a country for almost a century before we officially had a unique emblem of our own.  The flag was inaugurated on February 15, 1965, after years of heated and passionate debates.  Talks of a distinctive flag for Canada had been taking place for decades before Prime Minister Lester Pearson made it a priority, promising in the 1963 election to have a new flag for Canada within two years.  This promise placed a certain urgency on the issue, as no one before had placed a timeline on establishing a new flag.  John Diefenbaker, ousted as Prime Minister by Pearson in the ’63 election, was adamantly against the issue and proved to be the chief opponent throughout the Flag Debate.

PM Lester B. Pearson at a press conference for the flag, December 1964; from Library & Archives Canada
PM Lester B. Pearson at a press conference for the flag, December 1964; from Library & Archives Canada

Prominence was placed on the issue in mid-1964, and by that autumn, a committee was established to debate the issue and ultimately decide on a course of action.  There were thousands of opinions on what should or should not be included in the design, and several options were put forth.  Ultimately, it came down to two options: the ‘Pearson Pendant’ featuring three red maple leaves on white, bordered by two bars of blue, and a design by historian George Stanley.  Stanley’s design featured a single maple leaf centred in a white square, with two bars of red on either side.  It was Stanley’s design that was chosen by the committee, and on December 15, 1964, Parliament voted 163 to 78 in favour of adopting the red and white flag.  After Official Royal Proclamation on January 28, the new flag was raised for the first time at the Peace Tower at noon, February 15, 1965.

The Union Jack (above), and the Canadian Red Ensign, 1957-1965 (below), from Library & Archives Canada
The Union Jack (above), and the Canadian Red Ensign, 1957-1965 (below); from Library & Archives Canada

The Royal Proclamation described the new flag as such:

 “a red flag of proportions two by length and one by width, containing in its centre a white square the width of the flag bearing a single red maple leaf, or, in heraldic terms described as gules on a Canadian pale argent a maple leaf of the first”

As would be expected, the flag debate saw many come out in favour of the new design, and others were opposed to the change.  One of the strongest opponents, besides Diefenbaker, was the Royal Canadian Legion, who placed high regard on the traditions that were established with the Red Ensign design.

In Ottawa, at the official inauguration, Prime Minister Pearson expressed the following sentiments about the new flag, saying, “Under this flag may our youth find new inspiration for loyalty to Canada; for a patriotism based not on any mean or narrow nationalism but on the deep and equal pride that all Canadians will feel for every part of this good land.”

The first raising of the Canadian Flag at Parliament Hill, from Library & Archives Canada
The first raising of the Canadian Flag at Parliament Hill; from Library & Archives Canada

On February 15, while the new flag was being raised with the proper pomp and circumstance in Ottawa, similar ceremonies took place at provincial parliaments and local governments, Oshawa not excluded.  However, the ceremony at Oshawa did not go smoothly; it was unclear if there would even be a new flag to raise!  Due to high demand and low stock from suppliers, Oshawa did not receive its flag until 17 minutes before it was supposed to be raised!  In fact, due to the rush and uncertainty, two councillors were unintentionally uninvited to this ceremony.  Alderman Hayward Murdoch, Property Committee Chairman, took responsibility for this oversight, saying councillors were not notified on the Friday before because the flags had not arrived, and if there were not flags, there would not be a ceremony.  Ultimately, the flags arrived and were unfurled at noon.

Many schools and businesses may have been flying the Ensign or Union Jack on February 15 simply because the Maple Leaf flag was so difficult to attain because demand was so high.  Many banks commented that they were simply waiting for their flag to arrive and were flying the Ensign/Union Jack or leaving their poles bare until it did.  The Oshawa Times reported on who was flying what, and they remarked at the end of the article that the Oshawa Yacht Club at the lake had no flag flying, “nor did the Henry House Museum just up the street.”

The Union Jack flying in Memorial Park on February 15, 1965.  From the Oshawa Times, February 16, 1965
The Union Jack flying in Memorial Park on February 15, 1965. From the Oshawa Times, February 16, 1965

Perhaps the most endearing local story from February 15, 1965 came from Donovan Collegiate.  The art department ‘hastily put together’ a maple leaf flag that was proudly hoisted on the school’s flag pole; the following day, they were again hard at work, manufacturing a more sturdy flag that could replace the ‘rather flimsy original.’  Flimsy or not, instead of flying the Union Jack or flying nothing at all, Donovan students displayed the national spirit that Prime Minister Pearson hoped this new symbol would bring about.

Students at Donovan Collegiate raising their handmade flag, from the Oshawa Times, February 16, 1965
Students at Donovan Collegiate raising their handmade flag, from the Oshawa Times, February 16, 1965

As our flag turns fifty years young, it has given Canadians a chance to reflect on our country and what being Canadian means and represents.  The Maple Leaf is symbolic of so many things, including our history and heritage. Happy birthday National Flag!

Within my heart, above my home,
The Maple Leaf forever!

Remembering the Empress

By Lisa Terech, Youth Engagement / Programs

You would be hard pressed to find someone who is not aware of the Titanic disaster.  If there was ever any doubt, a certain blockbuster secured its place in infamy.  However, mention the ship, the Empress of Ireland, and recognition typically decreases.  This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, a disaster which took the lives of 1,012 people, and it remains Canada’s worst maritime disaster to happen in peacetime.  Commemorations have been taking place this week to mark the anniversary and to remember those on board.  There are hundreds of stories that could be told about the ship and her passengers; today I would like to share three.

But first, background.  The Empress of Ireland first launched in January of 1906.  She was constructed in England by the Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. and was owned by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company along with her sister ship, the Empress of Britain.  She had made hundreds of trans-Atlantic crossings before May 1914 when she departed Quebec for her first voyage of the year.  On board, there was 167 members of the Salvation Army, actors Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney, and explorer/politician Sir Henry Seton-Karr.

The Empress of Ireland, photo from Site Historique Maritime de la Pointe au Pere
The Empress of Ireland, photo from Site Historique Maritime de la Pointe au Pere

In the very early morning hours of May 29, the Empress of Ireland collided with a collier, the Storstad, and sank to the bottom of the St. Lawrence River in only 14 minutes. There were 1,477 people on board; 1,012 did not survive.  The Empress is commemorated at the site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père, a museum in Rimouski, Quebec

The Irvings

Earlier this year, after perusing through our postcard collection, my attention was captured by a simple photograph of the profile of a man and woman, with the inscription, “Laurence Irving—Mabel Hackney in The Affinity (The Incubus).”

Laurence Irving (1871-1914) was a noted British actor and playwright, the son of Sir Henry Irving, who was also a noted actor and stage manager.  Laurence married Mabel Hackney (1872-1914) in 1903.  They would often appear on stage together.

Postcard of Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney
Postcard of Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney, Oshawa Community Archives Collection

The Affinity, or The Incubus as it was also titled, was a play the pair toured with during the 1909/1910 season.  It was based on Eugène Brieux’s Les Hannetons, and Irving translated the play himself.  Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre advertised that they would be showing this production before the Spring of 1910, and it also showed in New York, with critics declaring it “one of the most entertaining plays of the season,” “well worth seeing,” and “punctuated by appreciative laughter.”

During the Spring of 1914, the couple embarked on a cross Canada tour, performing four shows: Typhoon, Unwritten Law, The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Lily.  The tour wrapped in late May, and the Irvings, anxious to return home to England, booked passage on the Empress of Ireland; the majority of their company were to sail a few days later onboard the Teutonic. The Irvings did not survive the sinking.

Grace Hanagan

On July 7, 1906, Grace Hanagan was born in Oshawa, a daughter to Edward James Hanagan and Edith Collishaw.  The family was residing on Metcalfe Street at the time, but they would later relocate to Toronto.  Edward was the bandmaster for the Salvation Army, and their family was destined for England for the Salvation Army’s third International Congress. Edward made a stop in Oshawa and visited with friends on his way to Montreal to board the ship. Grace was the youngest person to survive the sinking, and she was one of only four children to survive.  Her parents both perished.  Grace became the last living survivor of the Empress of Ireland before she passed away in 1995.

The Hanagan Family. Grace Hanagan, left, was 1 of 4 children to survive the sinking. She was born in Oshawa in 1906. Photo from http://www.empress2014.ca/
The Hanagan Family. Grace Hanagan, left, was 1 of 4 children to survive the sinking. She was born in Oshawa in 1906.
Photo from http://www.empress2014.ca/

May Blakeburn

May was born in 1890 in Sunderland, County Durham, England, the youngest of three girls.  In 1912, she travelled to Canada to work for the family of Walter Black in Halifax.  She had been in Canada for 18 months when she boarded the Empress of Ireland to return home.  She was travelling 3rd class and did not survive the sinking.

The Empress of Ireland is often referred to as the Forgotten Empress as the story is not known to many, but I have known about this disaster for many years. I wrote many a research paper in University about the Empress.  In my research, I happened across a newsclipping in the Halifax Herald from after the sinking, profiling passengers on board the ship from Halifax and area.  May was mentioned in this article, and it was said that she was ‘much liked by those who knew her.’

The Blakeburn family, circa 1895.  May Blakeburn, right, was 24 when she was on board the Empress
The Blakeburn family, circa 1895. May Blakeburn, right, was 24 when she was on board the Empress

May Blakeburn is the reason why I am drawn to the story of the Empress of Ireland and why I have known about it for several years.  May Blakeburn was my two-times great aunt (my grandmother’s aunt).

Today, we remember the Empress.